Difference between Linux distributions

This tutorial explains what a Linux distribution is and what the differences between various Linux distributions are. Know which Linux distribution is best from your requirement.

What is a Linux distribution?

A Linux distribution is the customized version of Linux. In simple terms, it is a collection of packages and applications grouped and pre-installed on standard Linux to meet specific requirements. All Linux distributions with less or more customization use the same Linux kernel.

Since all Linux distributions use the same Linux kernel at their core, no matter which Linux distribution you use, you will get all features and functions of standard Linux across all distributions. In other words, once you learned how to use or manage Linux of one distribution, you can use the same skills and experiences to manage and use Linux of other distributions.

Differences between distributions

The first major difference between various Linux distributions is their target audiences and systems. For example, some distributions are customized for desktop systems, some distributions are customized for server systems, and some distributions are customized for old machines, and so on.

Usually, distributions are designed for specific purposes or to provide an environment to perform particular functions.

The second major difference between distributions is the process of installing and updating applications. Different distributions use different application installation and management tools, called package management tools.

The next big difference is how distributions provide supports and updates. Some distributions are maintained by a community of volunteers while others are maintained and supported by a commercial vendor.

If a distribution is maintained by a community, you will get all updates and supports free of cost. But if a distribution is maintained by a commercial vendor, you may have to pay for support services, updates, and maintenance.

Derived Linux distribution

When a new Linux distribution is created by using the source code of an existing Linux distribution, it is known as derived Linux distribution. Linux is open-source software. It means the source code of a Linux distribution is freely available for all.

Developers can view and use the source code of an existing Linux distribution to create their distributions. These new derivations usually have their branding and features. For example, CentOS Linux is derived from RHEL Linux.

Most popular Linux distributions

The following section lists and describes some most popular Linux distributions along with their features and target audiences.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux

red hat enterprise linux

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is the most popular commercially supported Linux distribution. It is commonly used by corporate organizations as server platforms due to its dedicated support services and updates.

If you are looking for a Linux distro for a corporate organization or you can afford the subscription fee, then Red Hat Enterprise Linux should be your first choice. It not only provides guaranteed support services and updates but also provides technical assistance as per-requirement.

For software installation and management, it uses RPM and YUM tools. In July 2019, Red Hat Inc.( the parent company of RHEL) was acquired by IBM.

CentOS Linux

centos linux

CentOS Linux is a derivation of RHEL. It uses all source codes of RHEL without branding and artwork. If you want to use RHEL Linux without paying a subscription fee for additional support, CentOS is the best choice for you.

When Red Hat Inc. (IBM) releases a new version of RHEL or releases an update of the existing version of RHEL, the developer community of CentOS makes a clone copy of that release by using the same source code and release that copy under the CentOS brand name.

CentOS Linux is the replica of RHEL Linux without brand name and support. For support, you have to rely on the developer community of the CentOS.

Many other distributions are also derived from RHEL such as Scientific Linux and Oracle Linux. Unlike CentOS, these distributions are not replicas of RHEL. These distributions use RHEL's source code as the base platform and build their distributions.

Fedora Linux

fedora linux

Fedora project is sponsored by RHEL. Red Hat uses Fedora as a testing ground to test its new features. Many features introduced in Fedora usually make their way into the new version of RHEL. Red Hat does not provide any support for Fedora Linux. For support, you have to rely on the community of volunteers.

Fedora Linux is a good choice for instructors who provide Linux training or for developers who develop software for RHEL Linux. It allows instructors and developers to learn, understand, and use new features even before they become available for all.

Since Fedora is a testing platform, it should not be used for commercial use.

SUSE Linux

suse linux

After Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE is the next stable and popular enterprise Linux for servers, and mainframes computers. SUSE is developed and maintained by SUSE Software Solutions (Germany).

Just like Red Hat Linux, you can install, test, and use SUSE Linux without paying a fee to SUSE. But if you need support and update, then you have to purchase a paid subscription. SUSE Linux is suitable for enterprise-size networks.

Debian Linux

debian linux

The Debian Linux is a pure community based free Linux distro. It is developed, managed, distributed, and updated by the largest volunteer-based community. This project was started in 1993. For software installation and management, it uses the dpkg packaging system.

Debian Linux is a good choice if you want a completely free Linux. The Debian distribution commits toward freedom, openness, and maintaining a focus on delivering what users want. Several popular Linux distributions have been derived from Debian Linux.

Another main reason to choose this distro is that it has the largest collection of software packages in its pool. It contains over 59000 packages, precompiled software bundled up in a nice format for easy installation on your machine.

Ubuntu Linux

ubuntu linux

Ubuntu is based on the Debian Linux. Ubuntu is funded and supported by Canonical Ltd. Before Ubuntu, Linux was known as the operating system of developers or network administrators. It was not popular among desktop or GUI users.

Ubuntu changed this trend by providing Windows-like GUI environment and tools. Shortly after its launch, Ubuntu became the most popular and used Linux distribution. If you are looking for an easy-to-use and free Linux, then Ubuntu should be your first choice.

Ubuntu also offers its customized versions. These versions are known as Ubuntu flavors. Each Ubuntu flavor is customized for different requirements and purposes. To learn about these flavors in detail, you can check the following tutorial.

Ubuntu Flavors: - Types of Ubuntu Explained

A lot of other Linux distributions are also derived from Ubuntu such as Linux Mint, elementary OS, Zorin OS, and Pop!_OS. The main difference between Ubuntu-based Linux distributions and Ubuntu flavors is that Ubuntu-based Linux distributions are developed and maintained by third parties while Ubuntu flavors are developed and maintained by the same team that develops and maintains the Ubuntu.

Gentoo Linux

gentoo linux

Gentoo is also a community-based Linux distribution. The main feature of this distribution is that it allows us to compile the entire Linux from the source code on our computer. We can customize every option and application that suit our hardware platform and meet our requirement.

If you are a Linux developer or an advanced user and need a Linux that contains only what you want, this is a perfect choice.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux

Arch Linux is a lightweight and flexible distribution. This distribution contains only essential and stable versions of the software. If you have an old system and need a lightweight Linux distribution, this is a perfect choice.


knoppix linux

KNOPPIX Linux is based on Debian Linux. This distribution provides a compact and live version of Linux. You can install it on any removable device such as CD, DVD, and USB drive. Once installed, you can run KNOPPIX Linux from the removable device.

To use KNOPPIX Linux, boot the system from the removable device. When you boot a system from the removable device that contains KNOPPIX Linux, the KNOPPIX Linux automatically detects and configures the hardware of the host computer.

After booting, you can use the KNOPPIX Linux just as it is installed on the hard disk of that computer.

Kali Linux

kali linux

Kali Linux is also based on Debian Linux. This Linux is mainly customized for testing the security of network and system. This distribution comes with a lot of tools that are used in hacking, cracking, and testing networks and web applications.

If you are an ethical hacker or need a Linux for ethical hacking purposes, this is the best choice for you. Frankly, there is no better distribution than Kali Linux for ethical hacking purposes.

Which Distribution Should You Choose?

There is no pre-defined rule for selecting a particular distribution. You should choose a distribution the meets with your requirement, skills, and budget. My broad recommendation, though, is that you should choose a Red Hat derived distribution for an enterprise-size network or a large size network and should choose an Ubuntu derived distribution for personal use or for a small or mid-size network.

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